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Iraq: Palestinians Evicted From Their Homes Face Uncertain Future

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, many Palestinian refugees in Iraq have been harassed, subjected to violent attacks, and forcefully evicted from their homes. The anger against the Palestinians is rooted in the preferable treatment Saddam Hussein gave them in his efforts to represent a pan-Arabic cause. The Palestinian refugees are now largely based in two camps.

Baghdad, 20 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces last month, many Iraqi landlords evicted their Palestinian tenants by force. Many of Baghdad's Palestinians now live in two refugee camps -- one located in a no-man's land at the Jordanian border, the other at the Haifa Sports Club facilities in Baghdad.

Palestinians living in Iraq are being targeted because of the support they received from former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who manipulated them for his regime's own political purposes.

There are no accurate statistics on the size of the Palestinian refugee community in Iraq. Some estimates say there are nearly 34,000 Palestinians living in Iraq. They came in several waves -- the first in 1948, the last after the 1991 Gulf War, when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's public support for Hussein inflamed anti-Palestinian sentiment in neighboring Kuwait, where many of them lived.

In the late 1940s, Palestinian refugees were housed in schools and military camps. In the 1970s, the Iraqi government began renting private houses to them. As the Iraqi economy deteriorated following the Gulf War, Hussein -- seeking to create an image as a defender of the Palestinians -- froze the rent the state was paying to the landlords of homes occupied by Palestinians. By the end of the 1990s, landlords were receiving less than $1 per month as rent for their Palestinian tenants.

It is not surprising, then, that many Palestinians supported Hussein's regime and resisted coalition forces when they entered the capital last month.

The Palestinians never became Iraqi citizens, however. They were provided only with refugee travel documents and had legal restrictions that prohibited them from buying homes, cars, or telephone lines in their own names.

Our correspondent spoke with some of the refugees living on the grounds of the Haifa Sports Club in Baghdad about their plight.

Anwer Alsheik is the spokesman for the well-organized camp, where he says some 200 Palestinians are living. Some 500 other Palestinians are known to be residing with relatives or friends in Baghdad. Little or nothing is known about the rest.

Alsheik says the destiny of the Palestinians in the camp will be in the hands of the interim Iraqi administration because the Palestinians have no documents to travel abroad and there is no country that will accept them.

Etidal Muhammad Hussein is nearly 70. She says she spent the best years of her life as a refugee. She says she thought she was more or less safe in Iraq, but then the war started and everything fell to pieces.

"When the war stopped, the landlord came with his evil face," she says. "He came in and told us to evacuate the building."

She says she refused because she had nowhere to go -- no money to rent another house, no relatives with enough space to take her in.

"The landlord came one more time and threatened to kill me," she says. "He was coming and harassing me for several days, then came with his friends and kicked me out. I had to accept it and found my way to the camp."

Muhammad Fouzi is in his 20s. He told RFE/RL that he once had a job and had bought new furniture for his rented apartment. When Baghdad fell to American troops, he says his landlord came and kicked him out, threatening to kill him. He says he had nowhere to go and filled out an application to be assigned a place in a tent at the Haifa camp.

"Humanitarian assistance has arrived and food is not a problem," Fouzi says. "What is most hurt is my pride as a human being," he said. "What is my fault that I was born as a stranger and will have to die as a stranger?"

Fouzi says his only wish is "to go to Palestine and die in Palestine."

Peter Bouckaert is in Baghdad as head of an emergencies team from Human Rights Watch. He said the situation in the Palestinian camp at the Jordanian border, which houses nearly 2,000 refugees, suffers in comparison to the camp in Baghdad:

"There are no facilities available to these people. [The Palestinians] are basically stuck in a camp in the middle of the desert. It's extremely hot, and it was very difficult for us to even work there only for a few days. I can't imagine how difficult it is to live out there."

He says a solution to the problem must be found immediately because the Palestinians are under threat.

"The problem should be addressed within Iraq itself," Bouckaert says, "and the American administration has no other way but to deal with it, because there is no country these people can go to."

He says the U.S., as the occupying power, must address the security of all of the people living in Iraq, including the Palestinian refugees.